Streets of Washington Presents – The many lives of the stately Old Masonic Temple

Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.

The iconic Masonic Temple building on the northwest corner of 9th and F Streets NW was the first major private building to be constructed downtown after the Civil War, and it was an extraordinary achievement. Richly decorated inside and out and with a grand ballroom on the second floor, it was one of the city’s important cultural centers when it first opened its doors in 1869. The building had many lives, including as a bastion of the temperance movement in the early years of the 20th century and later as a furniture store. It would also become the first major building to be successfully protected by the District’s Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act of 1978.

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The old Masonic Temple on the northwest corner of 9th and F Streets NW (photo by the author).

The building was constructed as the headquarters for the local Grand Lodge of Masons. Freemasonry is a centuries-old tradition descended from medieval stone masons’ guilds that evolved into a strictly fraternal order dedicated to benevolent acts. Masons organize themselves into lodges, which are chartered by regional Grand Lodges. Masons were first active in Washington in the late 18th century and formed a Grand Lodge here in 1811. By the mid 19th century they were using a hall at 9th and D Streets NW and needed a larger, more prestigious building to house their meeting hall and headquarters. In 1864, as the Civil War raged, Congress gave them a charter to acquire and develop a site for a new hall. The association purchased the 9th and F Streets lot in 1865 and began raising funds to construct the building. The project was run strictly as a for-profit business, with funds raised by the sale of stock. Stockholders would earn income from rental of the building’s public spaces on the first and second floors.

In May 1868 the cornerstone of the building was laid in an elaborate day-long celebration. President Andrew Johnson, a Master Mason, took part in the ceremonies, marching in a procession that began at the old hall at 9th and D, headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Treasury and then marched back along F Street to the new building site.

(Photo by the author.)

The Mason ensured that nothing but the best minds and choicest materials were put into the building’s construction. B.B. French (1800-1870), the Mason’s Grand Master and a former Commissioner of Public Buildings under presidents Pierce and Lincoln, headed the project. The building committee chose Adolf Cluss (1825-1905), the “red” architect from Germany who was a Mason and the most prominent D.C. architect of his day, to design the building. Cluss chose a style he termed “French Renaissance,” which actually appears to modern observers more like the great urban palaces of the Italian Renaissance. Ornamented with elaborate cast-iron decorations, the building’s façade comes alive with lion’s heads, angel’s faces, swords, shields, and swags. The structure was originally supposed to be crowned with a mansard roof, as was fashionable at the time, but the rook was left out for lack of funds.

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An 1880s drawing of the temple includes a horse-drawn streetcar passing on Ninth Street. (Author’s collection.)

The two-toned façade on the upper floors consists of contrasting Connecticut brownstone with pale-green Nova Scotia freestone trim. The first floor was originally finished in ashlared granite from Richmond, Virginia, providing a solid-looking gray base that “will tone beautifully with the brown of the upper stories,” as The Evening Star surmised in April 1868. Fitted out with large plate glass windows, the ground floor was designed for shops, while a double-height great hall on the main floor above it would serve as a music hall or grand ballroom for public gatherings as well as Masonic meetings. The two top floors were reserved for office space and private ceremonial use by the Masons.

The building was finished in late 1869, at a hefty cost of $200,000. The great second-story hall, with a capacity of 1,000, was said to be the largest public gathering space in the city at the time. It became very popular, “the scene of some of the most brilliant balls and State sociables given at the capital,” according to an 1876 account. Among the more notable events was a grand banquet given by the British Minister for the Prince of Wales.

One of the first merchants to rent space on the ground floor was Elphonzo Youngs (1838-1905), a New York-born mason and grocer who in 1870 advertised dried beef and choice New York butter at his new store, which The Washington Post referred to as a “temperance grocery.” The store would remain in business on that corner for many years.

Temperance, in the broad sense, has always been a theme for the Masons, and as the movement gained national prominence in the late 19th century, Masons became resolute proponents. Alcohol was perceived as a destroyer of family life and the cause of much suffering, particularly among the poor, so it was natural that the charitably minded Masons would be opposed to its consumption.

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Sarah Doan La Fetra (Author’s collection.)

One of the city’s most prominent temperance advocates became another of the temple’s early first-floor tenants. Her name was Sarah Doan La Fetra (1843-1919), and she was not only a fervent temperance advocate but became a highly successful Washington businessperson as well, in an age when women rarely were allowed to make such a mark in the commercial world. The daughter of Rev. Timothy Doan La Fetra of Sabina, Ohio, La Fetra was a strong religious upbringing and converted to Methodism at age sixteen. She was a grade school teacher in Ohio for several years before marrying Dr. George La Fetra, a Civil War veteran from Ohio, in 1867. The La Fetras moved to Washington, where George got a government job through his cousin, who was Secretary of the Interior, and Sarah soon became active in a variety of charitable projects and joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union when it was organized in 1873.

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Trade card from the Temple Café (Author’s collection).

La Fetra opened the Temple Café on the ground floor of the Masonic Temple around 1880. Like many restaurants of that era, La Fetra’s was also a boarding house, with several rooms available for temporary lodging. Mrs. La Fetra seems to have catered specifically to important women leaders who visited Washington. In 1882, for example, Mrs. J. Ellen Foster, an attorney from Iowa, stayed at the Temple Cafe when she was in town for a temperance lecture at Lincoln Hall, which was only a few blocks away on Ninth Street. The Washington Post praised Mrs. Foster for being “as brave and bold as any man in the advocacy of reform.”

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Stereoview of the interior of the Temple Café (Author’s collection).

The Temple Café soon gained a reputation as hotbed of reform. “Here’s where they hatch the assaults on the ‘liquor traffic’,” a Post reporter observed in 1882. It was also the scene of important charitable activities. In January 1885, a dinner for some 200 newsboys was held at the Temple Café (though it’s hard to imagine how so many of them were packed in to the café’s small quarters). The Post recounted the Dickensian scene:

All the invited guests put in an appearance last evening, and in addition, as an evidence of their appreciation, many of them brought two or three friends along. The latter, to their by no means voiceless grief, were kept outside on the pavement, while those having tickets passed in. The result was that two hundred happy expectant boys thronged the room, and about two hundred protesting and pleading claimants clamored on the outside. An amicable arrangement was effected by letting all the boys in, and there was a solid mass of boys extending the entire depth of the long room. Some were white, but more were colored; some had freshened up their clothes, and others had come as they were. All were grinning and sat wedged together on the long benches without once punching each other or indulging in other similar amenities of the newsboy’s life…. The supreme moment of the evening had arrived, and when the little gamins had a chance at the turkey sandwiches, cake, coffee, apples and oranges they made no delay in putting all these unusual delicacies where they would do most good. The boys then gave three hearty rousing cheers for their kind patrons, and then disappeared in all directions….

Mrs. La Fetra was known as a rousing speaker on the virtues of temperance, and in 1885 she became president of the Washington chapter of the WCTU. Expanding her business enterprises, the following year she leased the former Washington Grove Hotel, which she rechristened the Hotel Fredonia. For several years she kept the Temple Café going as well, while she also devoted more of her energies to helping the poor. As head of the local WCTU, she became involved in the effort to clean up the city’s alleys, targeting in 1892 the infamous Louse Alley (where the National Museum of the American Indian now stands, on the Mall), which the Post asserted had an “unimpeached record as one of the blackest and vilest plague spots in darkest Washington.” One day in May 1892 La Fetra and her cohorts did some “practical slumming,” visiting Louse Alley and making arrangements to open a mission in that “unsavory byway, which has figured so long and often in the annals of the police court.” She also proposed changing its name to “Reform Alley.” La Fetra was one of many church and social leaders actively involved in the movement to clean up the city’s alleys in the 1890s.

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Postcard view of Louse Alley, circa 1910 (Author’s collection).

Under La Fetra’s leadership, the WCTU opened a “Hope and Help Mission” shelter for “poor unfortunate women, inebriates, opium-eaters and incapables of all conditions.” Meanwhile La Fetra continued in the hotel business, taking over the former Irvine Hotel on the northwest corner of Eleventh and G Street NW in 1894 and renaming that Hotel La Fetra. The national WCTU met there in 1906 and were treated to an elegant vegetarian dinner, Mrs. La Fetra having becoming a vegetarian at some point after feeding the newsboys their turkey sandwiches. She would retire within a few years and finally passed away in 1919 at her apartment at 3152 Mount Pleasant Street NW.

Masonic Temple - Storm of July 30 1913
A crumpled sheet of roofing lies in the street outside the Masonic Temple after a ferocious summer storm that whipped through Washington on July 30, 1913. The storm is also responsible for ripping the steeple off of the nearby Calvary Baptist Church (Library of Congress).

Meanwhile, the masons had outgrown their elegant temple building and in 1908 completed an impressive new Beaux-Arts structure at 13th Street and New York Avenue, NW (as chronicled in a previous Streets of Washington article). They decided to rent out the old building for awhile, and it was taken over by the Strayer’s Business College (now Strayer University). Strayer’s was founded in Baltimore in 1892 by Dr. Seibert Irving Strayer (1867-1941), and it opened its first branch in Washington in 1904, moving to the Masonic Temple in 1909. The school moved to 721 Thirteenth Street NW in 1921 because it needed more space.

The Julius Lansburgh Furniture Company took over the temple building that same year. Julius Lansburgh (1852-1930) was born in Hamburg, Germany, and immigrated to the U.S. with his brothers Gustave and James, settling first in Baltimore and later moving to Washington. In 1860 Gustave and James founded Lansburgh & Bro., a dry goods store that eventually became one of the city’s pre-eminent department stores. Julius worked in the furniture department, and in the 1870s he set out on his own. His furniture company became well known, and when he retired in 1919, the new owners kept the Lansburgh name. Lansburgh’s extensively remodeled the Masonic Temple for retail use, dividing up the over-sized second floor into two levels, reconfiguring all the interior walls, and removing almost all interior decorations. The company then bought the building in 1926 and kept its furniture store there until it went out of business in 1970.

Though vacant and deteriorating, the distinguished building was recognized as an historic landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Then, in 1978, The Washington Post reported that the YWCA had made a shocking deal to parking lot magnate Dominic F. Antonelli, Jr. (1922-2010) to acquire an adjoining lot on which to build a new headquarters. As part of that deal, Antonelli would gain possession of the old Masonic Temple, which would “be torn down and paved over for a parking lot.” Fortunately, when the Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act went into effect in March 1979, Antonelli’s plans to demolish the temple were quashed.

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The old Masonic Temple in June 1969 (Historic American Buildings Survey)

Establishing a pattern that developers would repeat time and again, Antonelli then filed a petition to be allowed to tear down the protected building because saving it would be an “economic hardship.” He offered to save the exterior walls that faced the street, but only if allowed to construct a new, larger office building behind them. According to the Post, Kirk White, Antonelli’s attorney, argued that “no commercially viable undertaking is possible in the present building.” Fortunately for posterity, Antonelli’s plea was denied by the Historic Preservation Review Board at its very first meeting under the new preservation law. Don’t Tear It Down, the predecessor of the D.C. Preservation League, led the defense of the building at the board’s hearing. In 1981, the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the board’s decision, declaring that the mere fact that a new office building would be more profitable was not justification for demolishing the historic structure. The building then continued to sit empty for more than a decade.

Finally in 1992, through the benefit of a credit system whereby unused development rights are sold to developers to use at other sites, funds were obtained to restore the building to its former glory. Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey observed that “an unwanted duckling of a building has been transformed into an aesthetic swan.” Repairs included removing layers of drab paint from the exterior and installing fiberglass reproductions of the long-lost exterior cast-iron ornaments, made from original molds that had been saved by the Smithsonian. Further restoration was undertaken beginning in 1998, when work began to construct a modern office building next to the historic temple. Even some traces of original painted interior decorations were uncovered and preserved. Finally, in 2001, the new office building, designed by Martinez & Johnson for the Gallup Organization, was completed and connected with the old building, bringing the old temple back again for another life.

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Special thanks to Bruce Yarnall of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office for his research assistance and to Jim Berger, who graciously provided the stereoview of the interior of the Temple Cafe. Some of the material in this article previously appeared in an earlier Streets of Washington post. Other sources included EHT Traceries, Inc., The Masonic Temple: Interior Configuration and Decoration (1998); Joseph West Moore, Picturesque Washington: Pencil and Pen Sketches (1880); National Capital Planning Commission, Downtown Urban Renewal Area Landmarks (1970); Nancy B. Schwartz, ed., Historic American Buildings Survey District of Columbia Catalog (1974); National Register of Historic Places: Julius Lansburgh Furniture Company (1974); William B. Webb and J. Wooldridge, Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C. (1892); Frances E. Willard and Mary A. Livermore, A Woman Of The Century: Fourteen Hundred-Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied By Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life (1893); and numerous newspaper articles.

4 Comment

  • SUPER interesting! My very first job/internship was in that building with the Gallup Organization and I can definitely say that the developer did an amazing job and it was an amazing building to work in

  • This was a great read. I live near there and have wondered about that buildings history.

    Would love to see more like this!

  • I Dont Get It

    I waited all day to read this and it was worth it!

  • Great read! And an interesting look at larger cultural issues (the temperance movement, historic preservation) through the prism of one particular building.

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